Christian fiction is getting a beat down these days. Perhaps we should take a second look at some of the past analysis of it. This article is an edited version of one that appeared here at Spec Faith five years ago. I think it’s an appropriate examination of Christian fiction, then and now.
In addition, I thought about Christian fiction in conjunction with yesterday’s sermon at my church by Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, guest speaker and professor at Biola University. In addressing how we as believers can be ministers of reconciliation to our neighbors and family and friends who are without Christ, he said that we can agree with them about the problem we all face.
He went on to illustrate how we all resist death, how we all desire peace, and how we all have a passion to find love, so much so that we fill our stories with happy endings that give us the perfect world we so desperately desire. Yes, fiction does that. Not just Christian fiction. The Princess Bride, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Superman, Pretty Woman, Sleepless In Seattle. Or even more recent films like La La Land, Love And Friendship, It Had To Be You, and others.
The point of the message is that we all, believers and non-believers alike, have a desire to know the perfection for which we were created. We want life without death, a world without war, and relationships that give us true love. So we pepper our stories with the desires of our heart.
Christian fiction does so as well. Is that a bad thing?
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The novel had a simple, even predictable plot, and the writing was serviceable at best. The characters were not complex, the theme undeniably obvious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to the climax of the story and cried.
Isn’t that the greatest achievement for fiction—to move readers emotionally?
Not according to freelance writer Tony Woodlief in his article “Bad Christian Art” which appeared in the online journal Image. In this critique of Christian fiction, Woodlief lists three specific areas he refers to as “some common sins of the Christian writer.” Last on the list is sentimentality:
Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion. (emphasis mine)
I’ll admit, this has me confused. When is passion in fiction “earned” by the reader? It isn’t. Whatever passion a reader experiences is in one sense “borrowed” because he’s reading someone else’s story. The fear or tension or joy a reader feels in reaction to what happens to a pretend person is never earned in the sense that the reader lived the events that generated the emotion. So what kind of story could ever create “earned” passion?
Since I’m admitting stuff today, I’ll add this: I’ve teared up at Hallmark greeting card commercials, too.
You might think that I’m merely a maudlin person, perhaps, but I don’t think so because I know others who have teared up at the end of those heartwarming, sentimental card ads.
Ah, sentimental—“of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia” according to the Oxford American Dictionary. But there seems to be an important difference in the use of sentimental when discussing literature, music, or art: “dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” (emphasis mine).
So the emotion isn’t the problem, it would seem, but rather the issue is whether it is exaggerated or self-indulgent. Honestly, I don’t know that this use of sentimentality gives room for a “right” or earned passion. It seems to me if it is sentimental—exaggerated and self-indulgent—there is no change that will make the reader’s emotional experience “earned” and therefore acceptable and appropriate.
I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding this. For one thing, I don’t know if I understand what exaggerated emotion in fiction looks like.
I think I know it when it comes to suspense. It’s the old piece of writing advice—if all the character has to trust in is a horse, then shoot the horse. (That’s my interpretation of “make things go from bad to worse.”) Often times I read or watch a story unfold and roll my eyes because all those bad things happening to one person in a lifetime would be unbelievable, never mind that in this story it’s all taking place within forty-eight hours!
Perhaps the same could play out with grief—one person after another dying or leaving. But I don’t think that’s the accusation against Christian fiction.
Woodlief compared sentimentality in Christian fiction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of cheap grace. He then elaborates:
The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.
But that brings another question. Is it always sentimental to show God’s goodness and not also show man’s depravity? I mean, apparently Kinkade detractors want to see a rusted car or a discarded tire painted into the foreground of his scenic pictures.
These visual comparisons to writing make me think of where I live in Southern California. We are surrounded by beauty, but at the same time, man’s depravity is just as apparent. As an illustration, a view of the snow capped San Gabriel Mountains, which I can see out my window, often include the gray haze of smog. But not always. If I were to paint the picture the day after it rained, the sky would be a wonderful cerulean hue.
Which of these views is true? Both. If I were to intimate, however, that the latter is the only truth, then perhaps that would be “self-indulgent” or at least dishonest.
But I believe, to intimate that the sky is never smog-free is just as untruthful.
Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were such masters because they knew how to show both the truth of this world and the truth of Christian hope.
In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo decides to claim the one ring for himself, but in spite of his change of heart, the ring is destroyed. Yet that’s not the end. There is more struggle before evil is vanquished, and even then not everyone “lives happily ever after.”
So too with Narnia. At one point each of the children learns he or she won’t be coming back to Narnia … but then all except Susan do, in a final way that is bitter-sweet.
I cried at the end of those stories. Was that sentimental because I hadn’t earned the right to feel the joy mixed with sadness—the commingling sense of triumph and loss?
I never considered anything about these stories to be sentimental. Instead, I think I cried because they felt real.
It is real stories (not “realistic”) that stay with readers. Not because I as a reader have suffered as the characters did or triumphed in the same way either, but because I recognize the truth of their condition. I may mourn because of it or I may long for it, but one way or another, it triggers an emotional response.
Is that good or bad?